The National Trust has identified ninety-three of its estates as having links to the country’s colonial and slaveholding past.Illustration by Michael Kennedy
Great estates are among the country’s treasures. But their connections to slavery and colonialism are forcing visitors to reckon with myths they may not want to abandon.
By Sam Knight – August 16, 2021
Dyrham Park, an English country estate nestled among steep hills seven miles north of Bath, fulfills your fantasy of what such a place should be. A house and a dovecote were recorded on the site in 1311. The deer park was enclosed during the reign of Henry VIII. The mansion that you see today is a mostly Baroque creation: long, symmetrical façades, looking east and west; terraces for taking the air; eighteenth-century yew trees, an orangery, a church, fascinating staircases, a collection of Dutch Masters. According to “The Buildings of England: Gloucestershire,” published in 1970, Dyrham Park constitutes “the perfect setting; English country house and church.” The house was a location for the movie of “The Remains of the Day.”
On the second floor is the Balcony Room, which affords fine views of the gardens. The room, once an intimate place to sit and drink tea or coffee with visitors, is wood-panelled. It has exquisite brass door locks. The fireplace holds a collection of seventeenth-century delftware, above which hangs a museum-quality Dutch painting of ornamental birds, by a court artist to William III. Facing into the room, with their backs to the wall, are two statues of kneeling Black men with rings around their necks.
The slave figures hold scallop shells over their heads. These were probably filled with rosewater, so guests could wash their hands. The stands were acquired by William Blathwayt, the owner and principal builder of Dyrham Park, shortly before 1700. Contemporary accounts describe him as a dull, efficient man, “very dextrous in business,” who acquired knowledge, jobs, and an ability to make things happen. At one point, Blathwayt simultaneously served as the secretary of state, the secretary of war, and the auditor of the nation’s nascent imperial accounts. Between 1680 and his death, thirty-seven years later, Blathwayt helped to administer the rapidly growing slave-based sugar and tobacco economies of England’s Caribbean and American colonies.
He became very rich. Blathwayt’s uncle and benefactor, Thomas Povey, who had been instrumental in the conquest of Jamaica, in 1665, was a member of the Royal African Company, which then held a monopoly on the supply of slaves to the colonies. Blathwayt’s family connections and multiple offices made him a natural conduit for commercial opportunities: beaver trading in Massachusetts, silver mining in South Carolina, human trafficking in the West Indies. During the renovation of Blathwayt’s country house, his deputies and contacts overseas were eager to send him exotic hardwoods, along with plants for the garden, deer from north Germany, and Carrara marble for his tomb—anything, as one official wrote, to enhance “the beauty of your paradise at Dirham.”
Povey, an aesthete with money troubles, sent the kneeling statues to Blathwayt. They were probably made in London, inspired by Venetian “blackamoor” art, but they are unquestionably depictions of enslaved men, in idealized page’s costumes, with gilt chains tumbling from their right ankles. Together with the delftware—Blathwayt’s first posting was to The Hague—and a Javanese tea table in the middle of the room, they served as symbols of his career and colonial prowess. They have knelt in the same place for more than three hundred years.
In 1956, Dyrham Park was bought by the state and given to the National Trust, Britain’s foremost conservation charity. It opened to visitors a few years later. People rarely asked or talked about the stands. In 2007, Shawn Sobers and Rob Mitchell, filmmakers and cultural researchers, visited Dyrham Park with around twenty members of the Bath Ethnic Minority Senior Citizens Association. Sobers and Mitchell had been asked by the National Trust to bring racially diverse groups to three properties in the southwest of England, where they explored the visitors’ reactions, as part of a series of projects to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade.